Testosterone, the Power Hormone

Written by Dr. Michael White, Published on July 27th, 2012
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What do the Arab Spring, religious Crusades and Europes revolutions of 1848 have in common? All were fueled by a surplus of hapless young men, according to Karin Kneissl an Austrian academic, author, and political analyst. In her new German-language book, Testosteron macht Politik (crude translation: Testosterone Makes Politics), Kneissl lays out her case for the primary male sex hormone as a driver of world affairs.

She spoke with TIME about the book. An abbreviated version of the conversation follows:

TIME: So far your book is out only in German, so I suspect most of our readers wont have heard of it before. How would you explain it to them? Kneissl: I started to work on the idea last year, while watching the first [images] of revolutionaries in Egypt. I thought that maybe one of the factors triggering that wave of violence, disobedience or riot was a biological one. My hypothesis is the following: a young man who has no possibility to channel his energy or his testosterone is able to disregard risk. All humans have testosterone, but of course men have a higher level of it.

I also talked with historians of, for example, the [European] revolutions of 1848, and of the Crusade times. In these chapters of riot and revolution, we always have the problem of angry young men that you cant channel otherwise. Ive been a teacher in some Arab universities and I remember lots of young men complaining in the last 10, 15 years that they simply cant afford to marry. For those men, not getting married means no access to a girlfriend, a woman, because of rigid social morals and you have a number who remain bachelors against their will. Because of social and economic reasons they cant find work. They have no opportunity to channel that energy they have, and one outlet can be social riot.

So I try to make my argument with references to the Arab world. I dont reduce my argument to those events, but I was able to interview a large group of people involved. The last time such a big revolution happened was decades ago; here, I could ask people, How did you react? Would you accept this kind of interpretation?

Tell me about the role of the hormone testosterone itself. Testosterone is often connected with dominance and aggression, but testosterone also has a lot of positive aspects, such as [imbuing] a sense of responsibility, and being a protector. When I interviewed young men in Egypt last year about their roles in their revolution, they said, We could be somebody, not just hanging around in front of the computer and not having anything to do.

For a revolution you always need people who are ready to go to the very end, who are ready to stand up when the tanks arrive, when violence breaks out. The young women I interviewed told me, Yes, we were therefor the first five or six days. We had a role in the demonstrations. But the moment the tanks arrived, the women in their early 20s [mostly] ran away, while hundreds of thousands of young men stayed. This attitude, disregarding the risk and saying,we are ready to sacrifice our lives they are willing to go to the very end.

I also spoke with endocrinologists, experts on the hormone. Weve had lots of studies about testosterone. On Wall Street, for instance, in the 1990s, [a study showed that] people who took higher risks had above average testosterone levels. And we see it with prison populations [a link between testosterone and] physical crime.

In the U.S. theres been a lot of news lately about a mass shooting at a movie theater in Colorado, and one of the things thats come out of that is that, apparently, inside the movie theater, a number of the young men threw themselves in front of their girlfriends to protect their partners. Do you think this ties into your thesis as well? Yes, of course. As I said, we usually associate testosterone with aggression and dominance bully behavior. But it also has this other aspect that you just described: protecting. Think of men in fire departments or volunteering in relief agencies.

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Testosterone, the Power Hormone

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